You are not your brain, and yet your brain determines a large chunk of everything that happens in your life. Your brain is a tool you must work with. This is an important distinction to how we usually think of ourselves.
When a man walks his dog on the street, the dog may start pulling in the opposite direction. It may refuse to walk or start barking. As we pass by, we can see the man struggling. We might smirk or laugh at him. “Ha! Stubborn dog. My dog used to be like that. Good times.”
If the man was by himself — pulling on an invisible leash, talking to the ground, struggling to walk despite there being no obstacle — we’d think he was crazy. With the dog there, however, everyone can understand the man’s problems. Of course, he’ll struggle — the dog is giving him a hard time.
When we look into the mirror in our bathroom, we never see the dog, yet the dog is always there. We treat ourselves harshly because we feel like a broken unit, like a machine where some parts are just off, but the truth is we’re not a unit. We’re a human with a dog, and it doesn’t always do what we want.
Steve Peters is a scientist, doctor, elite athlete, and coach to Olympians. In his book The Chimp Paradox, he uses the human-dog metaphor to help us live better — except he says it’s a chimp, not a Labrador, on our leash.
Genetically, humans split from the great apes 4–8 million years ago, but we’ve only built organized civilizations for about 2,000 years, and, DNA-wise, the difference is only 1–5%. No wonder we haven’t yet mastered our inner monkey.
If we work hard to do so, however, we’ll see great rewards, says Peters. By becoming aware of our and other people’s inner monkey, we can live more rationally, happily, and communicate better with others, he suggests.
The first step is to understand our inner battle. To do so, Peters simply replaces two complex terms with two simpler ones: He calls our prefrontal cortex the “human” part of the brain and our limbic system the “inner chimp.” The human is driven by reason and fact, the chimp runs only on emotions.
These two forces constantly compete for dominance inside our minds which, as you might imagine, leads to problems — especially if the wrong one ends up being in charge for a given situation.
Let’s say you narrowly escaped a crash in traffic on your drive home from work. You tell your partner about this disturbing event, and, in an attempt to calm you down, they say that, luckily, it all turned out fine.
If you’re still in monkey mode at that moment, still stressed, nervous, shocked, and full of adrenaline, you might see their reaction as careless dismissal. “Do they not understand the gravity of my situation? I am totally not fine!” This could lead to an argument despite your partner’s best intentions.
Had you already settled down, however, the human side could prevail. You would see the facts clearly: Yes, you arrived at home safe and sound. All is well, and the best you can do is move on with your day and not continue to fret over an event that has passed.
As this example illustrates, the most important thing is to regularly observe your own state of mind. When you feel stressed, anxious, or overly emotional, ask yourself: “Who’s currently in charge? Do I truly want to feel and act this way? Or am I letting my inner monkey take over?” Self-awareness is the first step to managing the monkey inside.
The second step is understanding that everyone around you also fights this battle, and it’s a battle that never ends. Your partner doesn’t know that you’re in monkey mode when you come home — but if they did, they’d cut you some slack.
Therefore, it’s worth trying to determine which state of mind people are in when you talk to them. From the two modes Peters describes, four distinct conversation settings follow:
- You’re acting rationally and so is your partner.
- You’re in human mode, but the other person behaves like a chimp.
- You’re the chimp, while the other person is rational.
- You’re both monkeying around.
The first scenario is ideal. The second and third can lead to misunderstandings, but if the rational person realizes the other is overly emotional, they can steer the conversation or pick it up again at another time. Try to avoid the final setting at all costs — it’s the most likely to end in an ugly fight.
Besides considering who’s currently winning the monkey-human battle in other people’s minds, it helps to always address problems immediately and directly. When you explain why you acted the way you did or why you desire a certain outcome — and do so assertively but respectfully — your words will be less likely to trigger an emotional response and might even help bring others back to a common, rational plane of thinking.
Finally, beyond watching out for your and others’ inner monkey in everyday life, becoming aware of the monkey’s never-ending desires on a long-term basis will improve your happiness.
This is the monkey’s sneakiest trick: He always wants more. By imparting this greed onto you, he gets you to chase an illusional, perfect state in which you’ll finally, always be happy — but only once you achieve the next goal, of course.
This is not just a paradox, it’s a lie. There’s always another reward to chase, so the feeling of true, profound relief will never come. Not seeing through this fallacy is how people win gold medals yet still feel utterly miserable.
It’s natural to struggle with this, but we must learn to celebrate our achievements as they occur. We can’t just check some mental box and move on to the next thing. We must pause, rest, and appreciate, whatever form that may take — a vacation, a good book, a glass of champagne. Being deliberate about it is what matters, not how big the gesture.
Remember: Your inner monkey will always dangle another carrot in front of you. Don’t let him ruin your happiness. When you pull off something you’re proud of, take a break, celebrate, and appreciate how far you’ve come.
The Chimp Paradox is a brilliant, simple metaphor you can use to control your emotions and act in your own best interest. It’ll allow you to make better decisions, communicate smarter with others, and focus on your long-term happiness instead of short-term gratification.
Here are 3 big takeaways worth remembering so your inner monkey won’t constantly pull you around with his emotional strings:
- Your brain has two major pars — a human and a monkey — and they’re constantly fighting. It’s your job to always observe that fight.
- When two humans talk to another, there are four different human-monkey combinations. Try to analyze which one you’re in to get your message across with maximum clarity.
- The monkey always wants more, but if you learn to celebrate your successes in real-time, he won’t incessantly nag you with his desires.
You are not your brain, but you’re responsible for what you do with it — even if it makes you do things a lot of the time.
Peters says even though we all have a chimp, we can’t use him as an excuse. “If you had a dog and it bit someone, you couldn’t just say, ‘Sorry, but it was the dog, not me.’ You are responsible for the dog and its actions.”
At the end of the day, we’re an animal like all the others — but there is a reason we ended up where we are. We’ll never have perfect control over our emotions, but it’s comforting to know that if we work on it, we can be a little calmer, smoother, and happier.
This article originally appeared in Medium.